Sunday, August 5, 2012

Chapter Three of Sondra's Search: Finding a lost Torah scroll can be as difficult as finding yourself.

   Sondra was bored. School had been out for a month. Jane was on vacation. Howie was busy studying for his Bar Mitzvah. Helga was writing a paper. There was nothing interesting on TV. The Crystal Plunge was closed. It hadn’t opened at all as protest against the government’s integration order. Julius and Helga, who remembered well what it had been like to be barred from public places because they were Jewish, were all for letting Negroes and whites swim together. Sondra really didn’t care; she just wanted the pool to be open. She had finished her last book and was tired of reading. In desperation she decided to visit her Oma.

     Frayda Afelbaum was a short, stocky woman but somehow she carried herself with grace. Even if she was just at home, puttering in her kitchen, her white hair was always neatly brushed, tied into a bun with the short wisps of hair caught back with her tortoiseshell combs. Although she kept busy with her fine handiwork, baking, and correspondence, the little two-bedroom farmhouse where she lived seemed awfully big ever since her husband, Josef, had died three years earlier.  

     “Sondra, how are you, dear?” Frayda was thrilled to have a visitor, “I just took some butter cookies out of the oven.”

     “Great!” Sondra smiled, revealing her dimple in her left cheek.

     As the two settled down at the oak table in the dining room, Frayda picked up her
knitting. “Are you enjoying your vacation?”

     “I guess so,” Sondra shrugged. “What are you making.”

     “A sweater for Lisa for the bar mitzvah. I want to make one for you, too.”

     “Thank you. What about Rachel and Ruthie?” Sondra asked about her cousins in Kansas City.

     “Of course,” her Oma answered. “They’re after you. If I have time I’ll make one for myself, too.”

     “You’ll have time,” Sondra laughed, knowing how quickly her grandmother worked. “It’s not for another four months.”

      “Yes,” Frayda nodded. “It will be nice to see someone really read from the Torah and not just from a book laid on top of it as usual.”

     There was no Rabbi in Lincoln and no synagogue. When the family had first come to Kansas from Germany they had held weekly services in Uncle Simon’s spacious living room. That had been when all of the cousins had lived there and all of the uncles were still alive. By the time Sondra was born, there were not enough men for a minyan, a quorum of ten men. The family would drive to Wichita to attend services from time to time and always on the High Holidays. Then, two years ago, there had been a surge in the number of Jewish students enrolled at the university. Dr. Cohen, a professor of history and a family friend, had suggested that they organize Rosh Hashanah services at the university chapel.

     The Torah scroll and makeshift Ark had been brought over from Uncle Simon’s house. One of the students happened to have a shofar that his grandparents had brought back for him from their trip to Israel. Cousin Oscar led the services and Dr. Cohen gave the sermon. It had been a success, as had been the Yom Kippur services. The small congregation decided that they would have services once a month on Friday night. Howie would be celebrating the first bar mitzvah, and that would be on Shabbat morning.  

     “You know,” Frayda said, “there is quite a special story about our Sefer Torah.”

     “Yeah?” Sondra was eager to hear it.

     “You should ask Oscar about it.”


     “Yes, Oscar.”

     “Okay,” Sondra agreed. “I’ll ask him.
     At one time that suggestion would have been terrifying. Sondra and her cousins had always been afraid of Oscar, with his bushy, black eyebrows, scowling face, and stooped shoulders. Then one Sunday afternoon, about two years ago, they had taught him to spit watermelon seeds and he had told them the story of his life. It was a rather pathetic tale of a boy coming of age in a small German village under Nazi rule. Uncle

Simon had been able to get him out in 1938, but his parents had waited until too late.

      Oscar was now Uncle Simon’s right hand man in Apple’s Department Store, but he had never reconciled himself to American life. After that Sunday, though, a bond had grown between him and his young cousins. Sondra, especially, was fascinated by his stories. Her grandmother’s comment made her eager to speak to Oscar, so after finishing the cookies and spending a half-hour weeding in the garden, Sondra decided to go to the store.

     Apples’s, a two-story edifice half a block long, was the largest store in Lincoln. Sondra’s first stop, of course, was the Men’s Section, to say hello to her father and his assistant. Cousin Berta waved to her as she passed through the Women’s Section and Mrs. Ward greeted her as she skirted the Children’s Department. There was no sign of Oscar, so she took the elevator to the second floor. Sure enough, he was in the office with Uncle Simon, talking to a salesman, and had no time for her.

     “Typical for the day,” Sondra muttered to herself. But by the time she got home Howie had finished his lesson and called to suggest a bike ride to his father’s ranch. Once there, Sondra told Howie all about the conversation she had had with their grandmother. They resolved that, no matter what, they would find the time to ask Oscar about the TORAH at Uncle Simon’s birthday party.

     Simon Apflebaum had been born in Germany in1881, but he left when he was barely fourteen years old. He first came to St. Louis, where a cousin had a dry goods store, and worked there for a few years. By the time he was nineteen he wanted to be on his own. Using his hoarded wages he bought himself a peddler’s pack and headed to Nebraska, Kansas, and Indian Territory. He did well and after several years decided to open his own store. Lincoln was a pretty little town without much competition and had an empty store for sell. Rumor had it that a college would be opening there. It was a great opportunity, but before Simon made a final decision, he took a trip back to St. Louis to ask Mamie Oppenheimer to be his wife and settle with him in the little Kansas town.

     She agreed and after a few years she and Simon were one of the richest families in Lincoln. They had one daughter, Regina, and she was her parent’s pride and joy. She was just twenty when she married David Krauss from New York, who had been studying business at Lincoln State College. After graduation he stayed and worked for his father-in-law. They had a baby boy, Richard, and, despite the Depression, Simon felt life was good.

     He took his family for a trip to Europe and they met all the relatives back in Germany. Everything had been postcard-perfect until the trip home. After two days at sea Mamie, became ill with influenza. When they docked in New York, Simon checked her into the hospital there, but there was nothing to be done for her. She died a week later. A if that were not enough tragedy, Regina was killed in a car accident the following summer. David broke his father-in-law’s heart when he decided to leave his memories behind and move back east with his two-year-old son. Although he promised his father-in-law that he would bring the child for yearly visits, Simon was not comforted.

     Simon continued to run the store but his heart was not in it. Although he was apathetic to almost everything, the news about what was going on in Germany, began to make an impression on him. He had three brothers, a sister, and all of their families back there. He decided he would bring them all to America, to Lincoln. He would expand the store and help them get a new start in life.


     It didn’t start out so well. His second brother, Nathan, was appreciative of the help, but his wife, Mindel, had relatives in Chicago. She wanted her two daughters, Anya and Charlotte, to grow up there. Begrudgingly Simon helped them get settled on the South Side. Two years later Nathan turned to his big brother with financial woes. Simon had been thrilled to again offer his brother a job. The family moved to Lincoln, but it didn't work out. Mindel and Simon just could not get along. Another two years passed and Nathan moved to Winfield, Kansas. He got a job working for a distant, bachelor cousin in his women’s apparel store. When the cousin was ready to retire Nathan bought the business and did well with it. Anya moved back to Chicago as soon as she finished high school, but Charlotte stayed and married the son of the only other Jewish family in town. They had two daughters, Michelle and Brenda. After Mindel died, Simon and Nathan began to get along better, although they would never be close.

     With his first brother, Eli, things went better. Eli was eager to come and getting visas for him, his wife, Sopha, and their children, Alfred and Berta, had gone smoothly. Alfred served in the US Army and was killed in action. Berta had married a distant cousin, Ludwig, who worked in the store. They had one daughter, Bernice, and she had been just a toddler when her father died of a heart attack. Berta moved back in with her parents and Sopha took care of Bernice while Berta went to work at in the women’s department at Apples. Now she was the efficient head of the department. Bernice was studying business at Oklahoma University and spent her summers working in the store. Simon had wanted her to go to Lincoln State, but that was one point he and Berta locked horns on.

     “Her chances of getting married in college are big and her chances of finding a Jewish man here in Lincoln are about nil. She’s going to Norman, Oklahoma. It’s close by and has a good Jewish population.”

     Simon had not been able to change her mind, but he was looking forward to putting Bernice on the staff full time as soon as she graduated.

       Frayda, the wife of Simon's youngest brother, Josef, had wanted to leave Germany already in 1933, when Hitler became chancellor. However, Josef dragged his feet. His cattle business was lucrative and he did not want to leave it. Finally, caving to his wife’s nagging and his brother’s pleading, he applied for visas for himself, his wife, and three children, Julius, Herbert, and Lotte. The application was denied; the immigration department claimed that Julius had tuberculosis. That had taken months to clear up and both Simon and Julius were convinced it did only because of a conversation Simon had had with an old friend who was a senator in Washington at that time.

     Josef’s family had come piecemeal, every six months, beginning with Julius and ending with Frayda and Lotte. Josef bought some land and a little house on the edge of town and he was content to work his garden and remember his cattle business back in Germany. Simon enrolled the boys in high school and Lotte in the same junior high where Sondra and Howie now learned. After school they all worked in the store, but Herbert left as soon as he graduated and went into the cattle business, like his father. A cousin from Kansas City invited Lotte for a weekend and introduced her to Manny Katzner, who had an insurance business. Simon tried to talk him into moving the business to Lincoln, but neither Lotte nor Manny liked the idea. They were happy to raise their three children, Rachel, Joey, and Ruthie in Kansas City, which had its own synagogue. Julius was the only one of Josef's children who followed Simon's plan. Although his dairy business was not doing badly, he still devoted most of his day to the men’s department at Apple’s.

     Simon’s only sister, Gertrude, had been a problem. Since her husband had been a decorated hero in World War I, he was convinced that Hitler would not harm them. It wasn’t until 1938 that he finally agreed to send his oldest son. Oscar left home a few weeks after the Kristallnacht pogrom in November. Once he had arrived safely and sent letters home begging his family to follow, his father began to think that perhaps they should leave. But by the time he made up his mind, it was too late. Even with all his connections and money, Simon could not get Gertrude, her husband, or her younger sons, Kurt and Eric, out of the country.


     Even without knowing any of the stories, Simon’s great-nieces and great-nephews thought he was wonderful. A tall, silver-haired man, he was always dressed in a three-piece suit no matter how hot the weather. In the summer his pockets were full of silver dollars and in the winter he put Hershey’s chocolate bars in them. Whenever the children shook hand with him they would find themselves holding one of the treats. As they got older, though, they began to sense that some of the adults were not too fond of Simon’s patriarchal airs.

     Be that as it may, Simon’s birthday was coincidentally on the Fourth of July. Every year since he turned sixty, there was always a big party at his home with almost all of the relatives from the area in attendance. This year was no exception and, of course, Richard was there. He always made his yearly visit for his grandfather’s birthday. At thirty-six, he was still not married. Supposedly, he spent his time playing with stocks and travelling all over the world. The children looked at him as a glamorous playboy. The adults grumbled that he had never done an honest day’s work in his life, while Simon had never stopped working. Still, they were always as anxious to see Richard as to celebrate his grandfather’s birthday.

     The gossip in Uncle Simon’s living room was nonstop and mostly in German, The six young cousins filled their plates with cake and escaped to the wide, circular staircase. Lisa and Rachel shared one step. The two nine year olds were inseparable whenever the Katzners came for a visit. Joey, aged seven, settled himself in between Howie and Sondra and little Ruthie snuggled up next to Sondra. It was not long before the older cousins, Bernice, Michelle, and Brenda joined them. Both of the Winfield girls understood only English. They had come to the party as chauffeurs for their grandfather and they were bored with the adults.

       Sondra was always thrilled when Bernice chose thechildren’s company over the adults. She wished she felt the same way about Michelle and Brenda but she did not. There was something about them that made her feel like they were always looking down on her, and Sondra was not sure why. Perhaps because they thought they were more American than she was. Sondra thought that was stupid. They should be jealous that she knew two languages. She said a polite hello to them and gave a genuine smile to Bernice.

     Tall and big-boned, Bernice was not especially attractive except for her hair and eyes. Since she was twelve years old she had worn her thick, brown hair down to her waist. Sondra had lots of pleasant memories of brushing her cousin’s hair while listening to the wonderful stories that Bernice read to her. It was Bernice who had fostered Sondra's love of reading. Whenever the older girl came home she was always interested in what was going on in her cousins’ lives. Michelle and Brenda did not share her enthusiasm. They were plainly bored with the discussion about the bar-mitzvah plans.

     Brenda made no attempt to stifle a loud yawn, irritating Bernice. She swallowed a nasty comment just as Oscar joined them on the stairs.

     “It’s too noisy in there,” he said shortly and settled himself on the step below the three college girls.

     “Oscar, do you want to play hide and seek?” Joey asked his older cousin.

     Oscar gave him a puzzled glance. “Don’t you think I’m too old for that?”

     Joey shrugged. Before he could get too disappointed, though, Lisa and Rachel hailed his idea. With Ruthie in tow the four youngest scrambled up to the third floor where the antique furniture and screened porches made it an excellent playground.

     Now was Sondra’s chance.

    “Oscar,” she said after swallowing her last bite of plum kuchen. “Oma says you know a special story about the Torah scroll.”

     “Well, yes, but you probably would not be interested in it.”

     “Oh, yes, we would,” Howie sat forward.

     “Yes,” Bernice echoed.

     Oscar gave a deep sigh. “It’s sad.”

      “Will it make you feel bad to tell it?” Sondra asked, with a worried frown on her face.

      There were a few moments of silence. Sondra, Howie, and Bernice were familiar with Oscar’s long silences, but Michelle and Brenda looked decidedly uncomfortable.  Finally he spoke.

     “I don’t want to make you feel bad.”

     “We won’t,” Howie answered automatically.

     Sondra frowned at him. “Maybe it will make us feel bad,” she spoke seriously, “but maybe we’ll grow from it.”

     Oscar smiled at the girl’s answer. “Maybe you will.”

     Bernice whispered a brief history of Oscar’s life to Brenda and Michelle while he collected his thoughts.

     “I grew up in the same house as your fathers, Sondra and Howie. In Mafdner. Your mother grew up in Frankfort, Bernice and your family,” Oscar turned to the two sisters, “was from another village not too far away. Actually, it wasn’t the same house. There was one door and a set of stairs going up to the second floor. We lived on the second floor. My father and Uncle Josef worked together in the cattle business. There were about twenty Jewish families in Mafdner, but by the time the story happened most of them were gone. Your mother’s family was left, Sondra, and the Schusters, the Kleins, and us.”

     Again there was a long silence. “It must have been hard to see so many people leave,” Bernice offered.

     Ja,” Oscar nodded and took up his tale again. “My mother had a friend who wasn’t Jewish. Hilda Schmidt was the blacksmith’s wife and her son Heinrich was a Nazi.” Oscar shook his head in recollection. “He was always a bully, but I don’t think he was ever a big Nazi. Like most bullies, he was a coward and he was afraid of his mother, too. He told her that the Kristallnacht was coming.”

     “What was that?” Howie asked tentatively, afraid to expose his ignorance.

     “Shh,” Sondra nudged him. “It was a giant pogrom all over Germany.”

     “You’re right,” Oscar looked at the young girl with obvious respect.

     “Well,” Oscar sighed. “ Mrs. Schmidt told my mother and she told the others about the Kristallnacht and we all went to the forest and hid most of the night. When we finally returned to the village all we did was head to our homes and collapse into our beds. In the morning, though, there was plenty to do. Windows had been broken, furniture smashed, china thrown against the walls.”

      “It’s sounds like our neighborhood after the tornado,” Brenda interjected.

      “This wasn’t a tornado,” Oscar retorted “this was Nazis. They searched our homes for valuables they could cart away, but we had taken all of those to the woods with us. Everything of value that was too heavy to take they tried to destroy. My little brother, Kurt, may his blood be avenged, disappeared from the work and I remember my mother was annoyed with him.”

     “Where did he go?” Howie pushed Oscar on after another long silence.

     “To the synagogue. It was in worse shape than the houses. He found the two Totah

scrolls on the ground and went home to get his wagon and went back to the shul and brought the Torah scrolls home with him.”

     “Wasn’t he afraid?” Bernice asked. She has heard bits and pieces of the story before but never from Oscar. 

     Oscar shook his head. “There were no Nazis in the light of day in Mafdner then,” he said bitterly.        

     “And how did the Torah get here?” Sondra prodded.

     “They were sending me to Uncle Simon a month later. It was put in my bags. I thought Kurt would use it here for his bar mitzvah, but he never came.”

     Out from under his bushy eyebrows Oscar glanced at his young cousins and was

chagrined to see tears glistening in the girls’ eyes. Even Howie was blinking.

     “I told you it’d make you feel bad,” he almost growled.

     Sondra nodded. “But it’s important to know. What happened to the other Torah?”

     “I don’t know.”

     “You don’t know?” Howie exclaimed.

     Oscar shook his head. “It was given to the Kleins, but no one knows what happened to them. Your mother, Sondra, was the last one in Mafdner.”

      They sat in silence a few minutes longer. From upstairs came the sound of laughter and from downstairs the buzz of conversations.

     Michelle looked at her watch. “We better get going,” she told her sister, “if you’re going to be back for your date.”

     Bernice went down the stairs with them and Oscar decided to return to the adults. Howie turned to Sondra.

     “I wonder what happened to the other Torah scroll.”

     Sondra shook her head.

     “Why don’t you ask your mother?”

    “I can’t. Daddy told me I couldn’t ask her anything about the war. He said if I had any questions I should ask him”

    “So ask him.”

     “Okay,” Sondra concurred. “First chance I get.”

     Her chance came the next evening during milking. Sondra sat on the cement doorstep of the barn watching her father work. Evening milking was a peaceful time, not like the morning milking. Then her father would be in a hurry, the radio would be blaring the morning news over the noises of the cows. Traffic would be heavy on the road near the barn. In the evening there were few cars travelling down the road. The cows were tired, willing to be milked and then go to sleep. The air was still. About the only sound Sondra heard was the milk squirting into the metal bucket. She cleared her throat.

     “Daddy, what happened to the other Torah that Oscar’s brother rescued?”

     Julius stopped milking, pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket, wiped his brow, and shook his head. “We don’t know.”

     “You don’t?” Sondra kicked at the dirt on the barn floor.

     “No,” Julius shook his head again. “You know when I was in the army I went to Mafdner on my first weekend pass. I was hoping to find it or some information about the Kleins and I found your mother instead.”

     Sondra nodded. She thought the story of how her parents met as romantic as any fairy tale or movie. “Did you ask Mommy about the Kleins?”

     “Yes,” Julius sighed and returned to his milking. “Mr. Klein had had a heart attack a few days before they were supposed to leave the country. Mommy did not know anything more.”

     “Did you try to find them after the war?”

     “Adolf Klein is a very common name. Your Oma wrote a number of people, but she never found anything out.”

     “Oh,” Sondra made no attempt to hide her disappointment.

     Howie was just as disappointed as she was when she reported back to him the next day, but they did not dwell much on their disappointment. There was a summer to enjoy and a bar mitzvah to get ready for.

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